In the 11 stories of her debut collection, Caitlin Horrocks shows inventiveness and linguistic dexterity. There are refreshing takes on old themes: childhood meanness, the effects of devastating illness, the desire for a better life, misunderstandings between parents and their children, looking for love in all the wrong places.
Horrocks peppers her sentences with telling details and surprising, apt metaphors. ("Eril was a woman without great talents, forced to pride herself on small, unexpected skills. Like the way she could untangle knots, hold her breath for two and a half minutes, or the way she'd taught herself in the sixth grade to balance things on her head the way women did in third-world countries or finishing schools." Or "Ursula was not used to seeing black people; she thought they looked dark and strange against the snow, like holes in the world.")
Adept at telling a story from the first person point of view -- from inside the narrator's head -- Horrocks spins four of the 11 tales from the skewed perspectives of women who rue earlier decisions or face new, difficult choices. In the first story, "Zolaria," the narrator is both 10 years old and grown up and married, the mother of twins. As a child she fears an ogre will capture her and her best friend, Hanna Khoury, whom she later betrays. As an adult she's afraid the ogre will wreak retribution for her betrayal of Hanna by stealing away one of her daughters.
Midway through the collection, "Embodied" is a spooky tale of reincarnation in which the narrator describes her 127th life as a new mother and the vengeance she takes into her own hands for the wrong done to her in a much earlier life.
Two of the more intriguing stories are set in Finland, told in third person about women whose lives are upended by bad choices they've made about the men in their lives. In "Going to Estonia," a young woman pursuing a degree in civil engineering ends up on a "booze cruise" with an unemployed drunk who tries to take advantage of her; and in the title story, a Russian woman becomes a mail-order bride, trading her lackluster life for another in Finland and learns too late that her choice was not only a mistake for herself, but that it has also had devastating effects on her 15-year-old daughter.
This is an auspicious first book by a talented young writer whose work recently won the $10,000 Plimpton Prize and a place in the 2009 PEN/ O. Henry Prize Stories.
Kathryn Lang is former senior editor at Southern Methodist University Press, where she acquired award-winning works of fiction and nonfiction for nearly 20 years.